Public Laboratory Dewey Barely Imagined: The Emerging Model of School Governance and Legal Reform


The American public school system is in the midst of a vast and promising reform. The core architectural principle of the emergent system is the grant by higher-level authorities-federal government, states, and school districts-to lower level ones of autonomy to pursue the broad goal of improving education. In return, the local entities-schools, districts, and states-provide the higher ones with detailed information about their goals, how they intend to pursue them, and how their performance measures against their expectations. The core substantive commitment of the emergent system is the provision to all students, and particularly to racial and other minorities whom the public schools have traditionally short-changed, of an adequate education, where the definition of adequacy is continuously revised in the light of the improving performance of the best schools. The reform seeks an education that builds on the curiosity and needs of diverse students and uses the whole school system as a vast laboratory to determine how best to achieve this end. If it succeeds, it will attain on a national scale enduringly the goals that John Dewey’s famous Laboratory School in Chicago was able to approximate for roughly a hundred students for a few years.

The reform grows out of and contributes to a new form of collaboration among courts, legislatures, and administrative agencies on the one side and between these organs of government and new forms of public action on the other. It thus redefines the separation of powers and recasts the administrative state more generally, while opening the way to new forms of citizen participation in the orientation and operation of key public institutions. At the limit, school reform raises the prospect of a broader redefinition of our very democracy.

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